Tuesday 24 March 2015

Irvin has the cooties

No matter how you look at it, it’s a bold marketing claim.

In 1915, the Irvin-Smith Company came out with a “Fascinating New European Game for all ages in life”. The concept was simple; a hand held game that involved tilting capsules into a small metal pen or trap. The game name, however, is anything but simple. Irvin Smith named their toy THE COOTIE GAME.

Now, if you’re like most people, when you think of cooties you probably don’t think ‘fun for the whole family’. Not so the good folks at Irvin-Smith. They boldly named their game after the vermin louse that most families would rather be without. But their intriguing approach to play went even farther than the daring name; the Cootie Game had as its background illustration a World War I battlefield.

When the toy was released in 1915, World War I was already a year old, and the background illustration captures in miniature what troops were experiencing in the Great War: men are poised in trenches; biplanes fly overhead;
cannon fire blasts across the plain; and soldiers with guns and bayonets make their careful way along the game’s bottom edge. It is a cartoon rendition of the horrors of war, cleaned up for a childhood entertainment.

It seems impossible that such a subject could be the backdrop for a children’s game, but the effects of WWI permeated every aspect of life and culture during the war years, even the toy box. Even more incredible is the use of cooties – one of the greatest scourges of the men in the trenches – as the challenge for game players.

The Cootie Game was a great seller with patents and distribution in the US, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. But one has to wonder – what was the response of soldiers when they returned home from the Front and discovered a Catch the Cooties game in their household? We suspect not many would have agreed with the game’s claim of being “Good For Your Nerves”. After surviving the horrors – and the lice – of the trenches, it seems likely that soldiers would have had only one response to this game;
Irvin has the cooties.

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